Stevie went upstairs, took off her costume, and started to do her exercises.
This was the main time she thought about her father. He had set up her original exercise plan, and then they'd developed and added to it together. She still remembered how he'd worked with her, how he'd kept her from rushing or getting sloppy, and even now it was like having his voice in her head. She didn't mind, though, because this was one of the good memories. She hoped she could find a good sparring partner here in U-town, but she had no idea how to look for one.
She was wondering if there was going to be any dinner. If Larry and Angel were eating at home and she was around, they invited her to join them. But if they went out, she was on her own. Which was fair, of course. She'd been very careful with the money she'd brought with her, and she'd found a Chinese food takeout place nearby which was nearly as cheap as it was unsanitary.
She had occasionally regretted that she'd never learned to cook, but cooking had been for her sisters. Thinking back, it had become clear to her that she'd been raised as the son in the family, prepared to follow in her father's footsteps.
When she got paid for the first time, she was going to take Larry and Angel out to dinner.
Now that she had a job, of course, she was going to have to figure out how late she could stay out on patrol in the evenings and still make it to work on time. Or, if it turned out that Stevie One was needed more late at night, she'd take a nap before starting on patrol. And she had to figure out the best time to do her exercises, too. Well, the pet store didn't open until eleven, so she would have time in the mornings if she got up at a good time.
When Stephanie was done with her exercises she sat down cross-legged on her bed and took out her journal.
She never wrote about being Stevie One in her journal. She couldn't do that unless she had a good place to lock it up. But today she wrote about her new job and her hope that she could make a good first impression there.
When she was done, she took a shower, got dressed, and walked downstairs to try to scope out the dinner situation. But when she was halfway down the stairs she heard voices. It was Larry and another man… Tom by the sound of it. She stopped, hearing the tension in their voices. Her feet were bare, so she hadn't made enough noise for them to hear her. She stood motionless and listened.
Tom was saying, "–it's a good situation. What's the problem?"
"Look, let me think about it," Larry said. She could tell from his voice that he was getting annoyed.
"Well, I kind of promised your–"
"What? Who died and made you the boss? I said I'll think about it. If that isn't good enough, then I'll tell you no right now."
There was a pause, then Tom made some quiet comment about who was really the boss, but Larry told him to get out and he went. Stephanie scampered quickly up the stairs before Tom came out of the kitchen, but he didn't look in her direction anyway. She was frozen in position, trying to decide what to do next, when Larry came out and stalked off toward the back of the house, not even looking at her. She heard the back door slam.
Stephanie decided to go down and see what was happening. She found Angel sitting alone in the kitchen. The older woman looked unusually serious.
"Everything okay?" Stephanie asked. Then she shrugged. "That's a dumb question, I know."
Angel nodded. "I guess it is. Please sit down." Stephanie took a chair. "Did you hear that?"
"Just the end."
"That was enough, I'm sure." She smiled. "I was about to say that you wouldn't understand, but I think you would. Sometimes things happen that force us to make changes that we really want to make anyway, but it takes something immediate and urgent to force us to act. Like when you got pregnant, that forced you to leave home. I don't notice you pining to go back."
"I do, sometimes," Stephanie said. "Mostly for my sisters. I had a dream a few days ago that I was going to go back as Stevie One and rescue them." She shrugged. "I'm pretty sure they wouldn't think of it as a 'rescue.' But you're right. If I hadn't got knocked up, I wouldn't be able to be Stevie One." She hesitated, then she said, "You're Tammy, aren't you?"
"I didn't recognize you at first, when you were her."
"There's a lot that goes into recognizing someone. Facial expressions, gestures, body language." She smiled. "Are you aware that you have a completely different walk when you're in your costume?"
"No, I don't think so."
"It was Larry who pointed it out. He said, 'Most of the time she bounces around here like a puppy, but when she puts that getup on, she starts walking like the Duke.'"
She raised an eyebrow, and Stephanie laughed. "I was raised on John Wayne movies. I guess they had an effect."
It was just getting dark when Stevie One went out on her nightly patrol.
Things were quiet for a while, at least as far as crime went. The streets were certainly busy. A lot of couples and groups were going out to dinner; people were bringing home groceries; some were walking their dogs. She even saw a man walking a woman on a leash.
Well, U-town was always full of surprises. The man didn't look at her as they passed her, but the woman glanced up and barked. Stevie smiled, but then she remembered that nobody could see her face anyway.
She didn't see anybody who needed help, so she walked up and down the streets, trying to learn more about the geography of U-town. Where the streets crossed, where they ended, where the alleys went through to the next street and where they were a dead end.
People noticed her as she walked around. Some waved, and some called, "Hi, Stevie!" It was a good feeling. Of course, some acted like they didn't see her, but that was okay. They were like the cool kids back in her high school, the ones who never got excited about anything.
Guys tried to hit on her from time to time, but she just made a joke out of it. One guy yelled, "Show us your tits!" She was tempted to run across the street and punch him in the face, but that wasn't what Stevie One should be doing.
It was starting to get late. Some of the restaurants were closing (the ones that didn't stay open all night), the theaters had let out, and there were fewer people walking. She had been listening for whistles, but she hadn't heard one all evening.
She was near the river, wondering whether she should end her patrol for the night, when she glanced into an alley and then turned back to the street. Then she looked into the alley again. It was nearly pitch black, but there was a bit of light from a street light in the next block, and something had moved.
The air was still, so it seemed unlikely there would be a breeze in the narrow alley. She pulled one of her sticks and turned on her flashlight. She thought for a moment that a couple had ducked into the alley for a quickie. There was a young woman in a dress, with dark skin and long dark hair, and a man wearing jeans and a leather jacket was leaning over her. But the girl's dress was ripped, and Stevie could see blood.
"Hold, citizens!" she called. "If this is a–"
"Help!" the girl called in a shaky voice.
Stevie pointed her stick at the man, "Sir, step away from the girl."
She wasn't sure how she could fight in the dark alley, since she would barely be able to see without the flashlight, but that problem was solved, sort of, when the man picked up a baseball bat and charged at her. She threw the flashlight at him and pulled her other stick.
The man tried to swing as he reached her, but she ducked aside and swung for his legs. She missed, too, so she turned quickly and faced him. At least he was in the light now, and she was probably in shadow, especially with her all-black costume.
Someone grabbed her forearms from behind. Shit.
The man behind Stevie tried to pull her back. She wasn't strong enough to pull against him, so she kicked back with her heel as hard as she could. He cursed and loosened his grip on her right arm enough for her to ram the end of her stick back over her shoulder with all of her strength.
The stick must have caught him good, because he screamed and let go of her. But it was at that moment that the other man hit her right shoulder with his baseball bat. She dropped that stick and grunted in pain, her eyes tearing up. The bat swung again and she fell to the ground. She was hoping that the one man would hit the other, but it didn't work out that way.
Then she heard something and looked up to see the man behind her twist around as a pair of dark hands grabbed him from behind. A dark face appeared over his shoulder and sank its teeth into his ear.
The man in front of Stevie tried to move forward to help his friend, but Stevie swung her remaining stick at his legs with all the strength in her left arm. She felt the stick connect with his leg, hard, and he yelled. He fell to his knees and dropped the bat. She scrambled to her feet, kicked the bat away, and forced her aching right arm to bend enough for her to get her whistle to her lips and blow it.
The man who'd had the bat was lying on the sidewalk, holding his leg, grimacing in pain. But the other man, his face bloody from Stevie's stick and from the girl's teeth, was moving toward the bat.
Stevie pointed her remaining stick at him and said, as authoritatively as she could, "Stand down!"
He turned and looked at her, his bloody face vicious, and then he ran for her. She braced herself, aware of her useless right arm, hoping against hope that the dark-skinned girl might help out a bit more, and then she crouched suddenly as the man reached her. His body thudded into hers and they both fell to the sidewalk.
He was clearly enraged beyond thought. Stevie knew that, in theory, this gave her an advantage, though she didn't feel like she had any advantages at the moment. She scrambled to her feet, saw that the man was having more trouble getting up, and swung her stick at the side of his head.
That did it. He was down, apparently unconscious. She realized, belatedly, that she had had one advantage – she was suddenly aware of the smell of liquor. It was like her senses were starting to work again. The sour smell of the drunken men mingled with the odor of the garbage cans in the alley. She could feel the cool night air on her sweat-drenched skin in the places where her costume had ripped. And she could hear an approaching whistle and running feet.
She pulled out her spare flash and turned it on, looking in the alley for the dark-skinned girl. Had she run away? No, Stevie caught a glimpse of her.
"It's okay," she called. "Help is coming…"
Her voice trailed off as she saw the girl more clearly in the light of the flash. Her body was lean and dark, and her clothing was so wrecked that she was nearly naked. She crouched behind a trash can as Stevie turned off the flash.
Stevie blinked in the sudden darkness, wiping her eyes. She'd caught a brief glimpse of the girl's body, and that glimpse had been enough to suggest that the girl was actually male. Deciding that it didn't really matter, or that she was just as happy not knowing for sure, Stevie turned as three security volunteers ran up.
"These two men attacked a girl," she told them. "I'll take care of her. Please restrain these men and make sure they get medical attention."
"Got it, Stevie," one of the volunteers said. "You'll go down to the hotel and fill out a form later, right?"
"Sure, as soon as I make sure the girl is okay."
She moved slowly back into the alley, not turning on her flash. Her arm ached more and more.
"Who are you?" the girl asked in a shaky voice. "Why are you dressed like that?"
"Oh, and I… thank you. I should have said that first. Thank you so much." Her hand extended cautiously out of the gloom and Stevie squeezed it briefly with her left hand.
The girl gestured toward Stevie's right shoulder. "Is it… is it broken? Is there anything I can do?"
Stevie shook her head. "It hurts, a lot, but I can move it, so I don't think it's broken. I have braces – hard plastic braces, like you'd wear if your wrist was messed up – I have them sewn into my costume, to protect me from blows like that. They distribute the impact."
"Who are you?"
"I'm Stevie One. I protect people. Who are you? And why didn't you blow your whistle?"
"Whistle? I don't have a whistle. I–"
"Excuse me," Stevie said. "I'll be right back."
"I'm not going anywhere. I'm practically naked here."
"I know. That's what I'm going to try to fix."
She had seen someone peering out a window near the corner, at the opposite end from where the fight had taken place. Stevie walked in that direction.
It was an elderly man, looking out a first floor window. "I heard the whistle," he said. "Is everything okay?"
"Pretty much, sir, except for one thing. Two men attacked a young lady – a visitor, I think – and they destroyed most of her clothing. She is hiding in the alley here, but she can't come out because she doesn't have anything to wear. I want to take her to the hospital, to make sure she's okay, but I don't want to subject her to…"
The man's hand came out holding a big fuzzy bathrobe. "She can use this," he said. "It's clean. Return it when you can."
"I certainly will, sir. And thank you for your assistance."
"No problem, Stevie."
Stevie trotted back to the girl and held out the robe, looking in the other direction until her body was safely covered.
"Are you okay?" Stevie asked, not exactly sure what she was asking, and not wanting to hear any details about what had been happening. Then she realized that the girl had taken her left hand.
"Thank you again," the girl said, squeezing Stevie's hand.
"No problem," Stevie replied, hoping she'd get her hand back soon. She didn't want to pull it away, in case the girl might think it was because she was Black.
"So, what is your name?" Stevie asked as the girl released her hand.
"Oh, I'm Nora." She smiled, though it was somewhat lopsided because one side of her mouth was swollen. She looked odd in the huge bathrobe. Her fingers barely poked out of the long sleeves and it was so long that the bottom nearly touched the ground.
"And you're not from around here? That's why you don't have a whistle?"
"Exactly. I'll have to get one, though."
"We should get you to the hospital, to make sure you're okay. Come on."
Nora gestured at Stevie's right arm. "You, too." She went and picked up Stevie's other stick and slid it into its holster.
The two girls set out across the city. As they walked, Stevie explained more about herself and her mission, and Nora talked about her evening in the city. Apparently it was the first time she'd come across the bridge (and, if she was a guy, the first time she had dressed as a girl – Stevie wasn't familiar with a couple of the terms she used and didn't want to ask for clarification). Nora had come across the bridge and walked around, then she'd gone into a bar to get a drink, but she'd been too shy to talk to anybody. Then she'd got lost on the way back to the bridge to go home.
Stevie felt that they were probably conspicuous, even for U-town, though the few people they saw didn't react. Two teenage girls – one dressed in a black costume that covered all of her, even her head, and a Black girl with long hair, dressed in a big puffy bathrobe (which under the streetlights was revealed to be pale pink), both girls limping and obviously in pain – that was not something you saw every day.
They went to the Emergency Room, and Stevie insisted that Nora be examined first. Meanwhile, an aide sat with Stevie in the waiting room and asked her questions, filling out a form on a clipboard.
"I assume you'll want to keep your mask on," the woman said.
"Yes, ma'am. I…" She hesitated.
"I will have to take my top off, for somebody to examine my arm. I would really prefer a female nurse, if that's possible."
"Of course." She looked around the nearly empty waiting room. "Come on. You're next anyway."
"Okay. Thanks." Stevie followed her into one of the examining rooms and closed the door.
Getting her top off was painful and awkward, but they managed it. Stevie had made it snug so as not to allow anything for an opponent to grab onto during a fight. It turned out that her arm was badly bruised, already getting discolored and ugly, but nothing was broken. The brace had worked as she'd hoped it would. The aide gave her some pills to help with the pain, and then they managed to get her top back on.
The nurse tried to get her to wear a sling, but she refused, saying she'd wear one tomorrow. Stevie One had to appear strong.
"I will sit in the waiting room for a few minutes, though, before I go."
"Fine. If you need anything, let me know."
Stevie went and sat on the uncomfortable plastic chair. The pill seemed to be helping with the pain.
There were things to think about. She probably wouldn't be able to go on patrol for a few days. She had to be at the pet store in the morning, for her first day's work. With her arm in a sling. She hoped they'd be okay with that. She'd just have to work that much harder to make a good first impression.
But she had saved Nora's life, as far as she could tell. That felt good.
And she knew more and more surely that there was something she had to do, and right away.
"Hey," came a tentative voice from next to her, and Stevie turned in surprise to see Nora. She was wearing an enormous pair of sweat pants and a sweat shirt, and she was holding the robe in her arms. She smiled cautiously.
"Are you okay?" Stevie asked.
She nodded as she sat down next to Stevie. "A few scrapes and things. Not bad, everything considered. They even found these clothes for me. How about you?"
"A really bad bruise. I'll be sore for a few days, but nothing is broken." She smiled and gestured at the bottom half of her costume, which was ripped in a couple of places. "I've got to make some repairs anyway."
Nora smiled. "You should have a spare costume, for emergencies."
"Good thinking. I'll work on that." She moved to get up, putting the little bottle of pain pills into one of the pouches on her belt. "I've got to go…"
"I'll come back here, for another visit, maybe next week. When my face has healed…"
"Maybe I'll see you. I'm always around in the evenings."
"Okay. Thanks again," Nora said as Stevie stepped away.
"No problem. I was glad to help."
She left the hospital and walked slowly down the empty street toward the hotel. It was the headquarters of U-town's government, and she knew Jan Sleet lived there.
It hadn't occurred to her that anybody would see her rescuing them as the beginning of a friendship. Erika hadn't. She and Claudia had thanked Stevie, and that had been that. Nora seemed nice, but she made Stevie uneasy. For one thing, was she a boy or a girl? And, either way, was she looking to become Stevie's friend, or had she been about to ask Stevie out on a date? That was what it had felt like. And in any case, Stevie One certainly couldn't date. That was for sure.
With an odd sense of relief, she put those questions aside to go back to what she'd been thinking about before. Which was far more important, but also quite a bit less complicated.
The hotel lobby was shabby, to put it mildly, and there wasn't anybody around who looked official, but Stevie knew she had to do this now. There were a few people sitting on the worn and sagging sofas. Some of them appeared to be asleep. She looked around for something to tell her which room the detective lived in, but she didn't see anything.
"Stevie One?" came a voice from behind her, and she turned to see a short teenage boy with a shaved head. He smiled. "I'm very pleased to meet you," he said. He noted how awkwardly she was holding her right arm and held out his left hand, which she shook. "Can I help you with something? And may I ask about your arm?"
"I stopped an attack in an alley, down by the waterfront. Two man attacking a girl."
"Is she okay?"
"I think so. I left her at the hospital. The SVs took the men. I think I'm supposed to file a report, but it will be a few days before I'll be able to write."
"That's fine. The SVs will file a report when they come in. You can come by in the next couple of days and read it. If it's correct, you can initial it. But is that why you came here at this late hour? You should probably get some rest."
She shook her head. "I need to see Jan Sleet." She shrugged. "I know it's late, but it's important. I–"
"No problem, miss. She was hoping you'd come by tonight. She said to send you up at any hour."
"She's expecting me in the morning, not tonight."
"She's expecting you in the morning, but she said she was hoping you'd come by tonight, and to send you up, no matter the time." He could apparently see her frown through her mask. "If you work with Miss Sleet, you'll get used to this sort of thing. She'd be a terrific poker player if she'd ever bother to learn the rules. Room 218. Go on up."
The hall on the second floor was deserted, so Stevie pulled off her mask before she knocked on the door. There was no response, so she knocked again.
"Fuck off!" came a raspy bellow from inside.
Stevie looked up at the numbers on the door, suddenly afraid that she had the wrong room, but then the door opened and Jan Sleet smiled. She was wearing pajamas, slippers, and a robe, looking nearly as formal as she did during the day.
"Stevie," she said. "This is a pleasant surprise."
"Miss Sleet, I know it's really late, but it's important. May I come in?"
Jan held the door open and said, "Of course."
Stevie looked around the room, suddenly so nervous that she felt nauseous. Jan's husband Marshall sat on the edge of the bed, running his hands through his hair. He smiled at her and yawned. A young girl was in a sleeping bag at the foot of the bed, glaring at Stevie.
"Who the fuck are you?" she demanded.
"This is part of an investigation, Ron," Jan said. "It's important."
The girl made a face and burrowed back into her sleeping bag so that she was completely invisible. "My daughter," Jan said. Then she gestured across the room to the two desks against the opposite wall. "Please sit down," she said.
They crossed to the desks and Jan sat in one desk chair, so Stevie took the other one. Jan lit a cigarette and Stevie felt light-headed again. She had to do this, but she was afraid. Well, Stevie One should never act out of fear.
"Miss Sleet," she said, "I have to make a confession."
Jan nodded. "I was hoping you would." She smiled at Stevie's expression. "I've known the details of Ryan's death since about ten minutes after I got Claudia's front door open."
"Then why didn't you say something? And why did you go talk to Larry–"
"I wanted to interview Larry because it was a good way to let him know some other things. And I didn't say who had committed the murder because I really wanted you to come to me of your own free will." She leaned back in her chair. "Please tell me all about it."
Part Seven: The Solution
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